Do you feel like an interloper in your own relationship?

The One That Got Away. Yes, that Katy Perry platinum chartbuster. But also the once love of your life who was your everything. Yet now you’re strangers. What if fate brought you together again? As if you’d intentionally left a trail of breadcrumbs you could eventually follow to return to them. This happens in Past Lives, a Korean-American romantic film that dominates your mind space long after you leave the movie hall.

Though the main theme of the film revolves around two childhood friends (and brief lovers) who were wrested apart, only to be brought back together 24 years later, it is Arthur, the man our female lead is married to, who fascinated me — the “evil husband standing in the way of your fairytale love story“, as he christened himself to his wife.

Popular culture has, time and again, delved into the complex relationship we share with our what-ifs. The people who could’ve been. But what about those who really are? What happens to our relationship with our present partners or significant others when these elusive ghosts from our pasts — or a new apparition from the future — barges head-first into our lives? How does it feel to be the person left behind on the side of the highway like roadkill? Ruhi Kapoor, a 23-year-old textile designer, confessed it is just that: You become roadkill.

Kapoor was 15 when she started dating this man, let’s call him Aryan. They were together for three years before he went away to college and wanted to have an “open” relationship so he could date a friend of his. Mind you, this was a small town in Haryana, and nobody understood what polyamory was, back in 2015 (not that many do now).

“We were broken up for a few months then, and he started dating her at that time. When we got back together, he told me he couldn’t date just me. I felt like I was the third person in this relationship. It made me question my self-worth,” Kapoor told me. “Could I ever be enough for anyone?”

What constitutes feeling like an outsider in your relationship

According to Dr Mazher Ali, consultant, psychiatry, CARE Hospitals, Banjara Hills, Hyderabad, feeling like an outsider in your own relationship can profoundly affect your mental health, leading to a cascade of emotional and psychological challenges.

“When you feel disconnected or estranged from your partner, it can trigger a range of negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety, and frustration. The very relationship that should provide comfort and support becomes a source of distress, leaving you feeling isolated and alone in the presence of someone you care about deeply,” Ali said.

Sahil Bandhopadhyay*, a 23-year-old who works in tech, was left dumbfounded when his girlfriend ghosted him out of nowhere. “She’s now dating the guy she told me not to worry about. I felt like a turd for the longest time,” he admitted.

kabhi alvida na kehna movie Whatever the reason, the psychological consequences of feeling like an outsider in your relationship are more diverse than the varieties of momos you have in Delhi. (Source: A still from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna)

How can feeling this way affect your life

Psychologist Kamna Chibber attributed this scenario happening to numerous reasons. “Partners drifting away from each other, communication gaps, infidelity, lack of sharing and connecting, not feeling understood, are all contributing factors,” she explained.

Whatever the reason, the psychological consequences of feeling like an outsider in your relationship are more diverse than the varieties of momos you have in Delhi.

Vishnupriya Bhagirath, psychologist, Softminds Counselling Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, explained that the emotional baggage from previous experiences of feeling disconnected or alienated can create a fear of intimacy, trust issues, and difficulty in forming meaningful connections with new partners.

“It may lead to a pattern of self-protective behaviours, such as avoiding vulnerability or pushing others away, which can hinder the development of healthy and fulfilling relationships,” she added.

“‘I don’t deserve to be in a good relationship, ‘nobody will ever love me’, ‘I’m not good enough’. These are the thoughts your mind starts having after being in a relationship where your emotional needs are not met,” said Pranjali Agarwal, clinical psychologist at Lissun, a mental & emotional wellness platform.

“This cycle will also push you into doing impulsive behaviours. Constantly texting or calling if your partner is not responding because you feel insecure about your position in their life will destroy the basic foundation of your relationship,” she added.

Another way you could react to this trauma would be reverting, so within yourself, you cannot trust anyone at that point. Hardik Kamisetty*, a 21-year-old student, feels drained after the girl he dated ended up with her ex-lover.

“There’s only so much you can give before you’re done,” he sighed.

Chahat Bhatia, 24, who works in tech, also found himself in the same boat after his partner abandoned him for her ex. “I have an unbelievable amount of trust issues now. I can’t trust people to be with me. Would they even want to?”

According to what Agarwal has seen in therapy sessions with people struggling in their relationships, they all have that basic fear: “Ye mujhe chod ke chala gaya toh…What if this person leaves me?” This fear either leaves you immobile or forces you into action.

How to get yourself out of this toxic loop

Gehraiyaan Agarwal said setting clear boundaries within the relationship is essential for maintaining self-respect and ensuring your needs are met. (Source: A still from Gehraiyaan)

In the long term, this sense of being an outsider can significantly influence your approach to future relationships. If the issues are not addressed and resolved, you may develop patterns of behaviour that hinder your ability to form healthy connections with others. Here are some ways to understand how to deal with these issues and eventually move past them.

Identify your needs

Agarwal said setting clear boundaries within the relationship is essential for maintaining self-respect and ensuring your needs are met. “You have to accept what the person is giving you is their best, and if they can’t do better than that, are you okay with it?”

She stressed questioning whether your needs are being met. “It will not work if what they’re giving doesn’t match what you want.”

Bhagirath suggested reflecting on your feelings and thoughts and considering journaling to gain insight into your emotions. “By prioritizing self-awareness, self-compassion, and seeking professional support, you can work towards healing from past experiences and cultivating healthier and more fulfilling relationships in the present and future,” she added.

Communication is key

Another crucial aspect of healing and having better relationships, according to Ali, is open communication with your partner.

“Expressing your feelings and concerns honestly can pave the way for understanding and resolving underlying issues,” he said.

Question whether it’s your insecurities talking

Bhagirath explained that if you have been through an ordeal such as this, you might experience a persistent feeling of insecurity, jealousy, or suspicion about your partner’s true feelings or intentions, leading to an overall lack of trust and a fear of being abandoned or left out. It is important to understand that this might be a reaction from a past relationship rather than your current one.

Chibber recommended actively working to identify and understand your role and where you could have been different. “At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the role the other played. Having a balanced perspective on the whole situation is crucial.”

Seek support from friends and professionally

Ali stressed sharing your experiences and emotions with someone you trust as that can “provide validation and emotional support, helping you gain perspective and insight into the situation”.

It’s crucial to acknowledge the impact of past experiences and allow yourself the time and space to process the emotions tied to those events. Remember that healing and growth take time, and seeking support is not a sign of weakness but rather a testament to your resilience and commitment to your well-being. With the right support and self-compassion, it is possible to overcome the effects of feeling like an outsider and create healthier, more fulfilling relationships in the future.

*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s anonymity on request.

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